Squads of British soldiers file past a camera as they march up a muddy road. A seemingly endless line of soldiers becomes lighter and lighter until they fade like ghosts into a mist.
Until recently these soldiers have remained relegated to the mists of time.
Within the ranks are young men, many are just teens, a few older ones have stripes on their sleeves.
As they move towards the camera lens there are smiles, some shyly gaze downward, and a few appear to be the type of characters that lift desperate souls in the worst of times. I’m sure they are cracking jokes we cannot hear just like all soldiers do. They march out of the past, alive again for a moment from a past where youth was violently stolen by interlocking machine gun fire, mustard gas, relentless artillery, disease and the bayonet.
They are the men we read about in history books---men made distant and rendered still by black-white photos. Then suddenly a wave of color and clarity washes over the ribbons of a long-lost dream. Each face becomes clear, each nervous smile as real as the ones we see today. Then there are voices and puffs of smoke from cigarettes.
Last Saturday, I watched a screening of the groundbreaking film “They Shall Not Grow Old” directed and produced by Peter Jackson. The film uses state-of-the-art technology to transform audio and moving image archive footage from the BBC and Imperial War Museum’s archives that are a century old.
According to Jackson’s own description, the film strives to “Bring to life the people who can best tell the story of World War I, the men who were there. Driven by a personal interest in the conflict, I set out to explore the day-to-day experience of its combatants. Immersed for months in the BBC and Imperial War Museum archives, I created narratives and strategies regarding how this story should be told. Using only the voices of those involved, the film explores the reality of war on the front line. Their attitudes about the war, how they ate, rested and formed friendships in those moments between battles, as well as their hopes and dreams for the future.”
Jackson’s masterful film restoration literally enables these soldiers of the past to come alive on film.
At the screening I was joined by my 16-year-old son. I mention him mainly because his age is closer to the soldiers ages in the film. Sure, I was once an 18-year-old soldier, but that was in the 1980s. The men in the film resemble him more than me now.
We both thought the film was outstanding, especially the 30-minute behind the scenes feature at the end of the film. One of the elements that made the film work for me was hearing the actual voices of veterans speak throughout the film. It let the humanity of the soldiers speak for themselves and avoided any didactic lecture from the present--- like modern filmmakers tend do. The faces of the young soldiers many about the age of my son made the viewer ponder the tragedy of young men dying in war.
The war and the soldiers speak for themselves.
After watching the film, I discussed the amazing process of rejuvenating old film reels with my historian and photographer friends. Personally, the process of finding the correct film speeds and fixing the dark or over-exposed films was riveting.
My brother Owen, a life-long baseball fan and uniforms curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, commented on the possibilities of using these techniques to bring old baseball films alive. He also spoke about how historical accuracy is obtained from film footage at work.
“If you watch the History Channel’s WW2 In Color HD series you really see capabilities in late war color footage like on Iwo Jima and Okinawa,” he added. “Running film through computers to high def scrub them is a thing they didn’t talk too much about in the Jackson film, but it was important. Just not as groundbreaking as his understanding of film speeds. When we watch HD WW2 footage as museum historians we are continually seeing and spotting things we never saw before —the way uniforms were worn, markings, types of equipment and other details. And that’s just stuff from 1940s!”
At an early age I was fascinated by the First World War or the Great War (1914-1918) as it is often called. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of its conclusion. It was a global war wheremillions of soldiers and civilians were killed.
The poets of World War I resonated with me as teenager at Fishburne Military School. I was urged to read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon by Colonel Edward B. Young, a favorite English teacher and veteran of World War II. My grandfather, a World War II Navy Captain who proudly wore the Military Order of the British Empire on his chest, often read Rupert Brooke’s poems to me.
Jackson’s film is like Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est" brought of life. The faces of soldiers eager to fight for King and Country—are transformed through war.
The footage of the Scottish soldiers charging over the top of trenches in muddy kilts accompanied by the sound of highland bagpipes was especially close to the heart. When I visited my ancestral homeland in Scotland years ago, I was drawn to the many memorials that memorialized fallen sons and fathers in the Great War. Nearly every town in the United Kingdom paid a terrible price.
The accents, the sounds and the moving images serve as a true time capsule. We all owe Mr. Jackson a salute for this documentary.